Education

A New Mindset for Teachers: Self-Care Is Not Selfish

There was a time when I would work myself to death. All day, every day. There was a time when I would come to school sick beyond belief because I did not want to disappoint anyone, and let’s face it, because the hassle of leaving lesson plans for subs who never completed them drove me absolutely crazy. Late nights in the building, extra hours at home planning and grading, and various extracurricular activities required all of my attention and energy. I preached self-care to other people, but I did not practice self-care myself. There was a time when I put my job before my family, before my health, and before my sanity. That time ended just as the pandemic began.

I was working for a school district in Mississippi that I absolutely loved. I had been there long enough that parents and students both knew and understood my methods. My colleagues were good people, and we worked well together. For the most part, I looked forward to coming to work each morning. That is, until the 2018-2019 school year, when several staff members fell ill. One had an aneurysm, another broke her knee while at school and a third had a case of cancer that would attack her body at any given moment. The district docked their pay after they used up their sick days, per its policy. When I tried to donate my extra sick days to them as I had done before for other colleagues, school leaders would not allow it. At one point, a new school administrator refused to allow us to take up monetary collections for each other in these difficult situations. Even with celebratory events like baby showers, we were informed that we no longer “did that sort of thing here.”

I was angry and disgusted. These district employees were some of the hardest-working people I knew. They were at school as much as an hour early, worked through breaks and “vacations,” were the last to leave the school building and then took work home. I thought that if anyone should receive district support, it would be them. School districts are not businesses, but I do understand that districts must operate at times like businesses. Yet at the time, I expected there to be a more compassionate policy in place. Perhaps people facing extreme circumstances should have had access to a pool of donated sick days. Perhaps they should have been given clerical or virtual duties they could have completed from home so that they could continue earning their pay. Perhaps there could even have been a policy allowing these educators to use compensatory time they had accrued working so many extra hours.

Would these policies have “fixed” the problem? Perhaps not, but they certainly would have given my colleagues some breathing space, and perhaps even showed them that their time, effort and dedication had not gone unnoticed. Instead, we all watched these educators struggle to feel grateful that they had their jobs to come back to, even as they struggled physically and financially in the meantime.

I left my district that year. I decided to go into consulting, which worked out well until the pandemic hit and schools closed. My income quickly dried up, and despite my extreme working hours, no support came from the company for which I worked or the districts that I had been killing myself to help.

In the fall of 2020, I re-entered the classroom in a new district and with a new mindset. I now understood that if I didn’t make self-care a priority, I would be killing myself for a system that would just hire someone new in my absence. In fact, at the beginning of this school year, we lost a teacher to COVID-19. My students are still grieving his death, and ultimately the district had to make plans to hire someone new. Life carried on without him, and I think that made my new mindset tangible.

I have been more intentional about getting rest at night, and though I still work extremely hard, I am more cognizant of when I am giving more to my job than to my family and to myself. The pandemic has taught me that giving 100 percent to my students is not the same thing as giving away 100 percent of myself. This year was probably the third time in my 10-year teaching career that I took a “mental health day.” I have had to ask myself, what good am I if I am drained? How much value do I really bring if I am so sick that I can barely lift my head? Who am I preparing for the future if I am exhausted to the point that I am not mentally present? What kind of fire am I going to light if I am burning the candle at both ends?

Prior to the pandemic, I worked until I had nothing left of myself to give. My new normal is rooted in the reality that I am human and that if my cistern is broken or empty, there is a constant leak, and I can never be full enough to pour into others. As educators, we either take work home in the evenings or we take home the emotional weight of our jobs. For those of us who are passionate about our work, every encounter is a learning experience. Non-educators assume that teachers only work from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and that we have lengthy vacations throughout the calendar year. People do not see the late nights planning and grading, the hours of mentoring and counseling students, or the days of training and professional development during those perceived vacation days. People are unaware that many of us, myself included, work additional jobs and are pursuing graduate degrees. We have to be willing to go the extra mile to care for ourselves, because we work for people who often do not understand how hard we work and are unconcerned about our well-being. Who are these people? Depending on the circumstance, they may be students, parents, school and district leaders, or even colleagues.

I suppose if I had to sum up what I have learned about myself and about life during the pandemic, I would say that life is too short to waste it pretending that I can be all things to all people at all times. I have learned during the pandemic that self-care is not selfish; that it is a necessity, not a luxury. I am obviously unhappy with the devastating impacts of the pandemic on my community, colleagues and this country. In retrospect though, I value the wisdom I have gained because of it. I am a better person because of this revelation. My students see a joyous and authentic version of me. I am still who I have always been: a woman dedicated to exposing my students to the beautiful mystery of science. I am also a human who is incapable of living out my calling if I do not nurture and care for myself in the process.

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